Tag Archive | Modernism

D.H. Lawrence and Schiele on Eroticism/Pornography: a Modernist Debate.

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Last week Dr Gemma Blackshaw presented her paper “The Modernist Offence: Egon Schiele and the Naked Female Body” at the Freud Museum complementing the current exhibition “Schiele: The Radical Nude” at The Courtauld Gallery. Schiele was an Austrian modernist painter in Vienna around the 1910s and 1920s. His portraits and paintings are focused on naked female bodies with particular depictions of the genital organ which led him to big troubles with the Austrian law being accused of indecency and immorality. Vienna was a very important focus of intellectuality at the turn of the century, and also the most important producer of illegal pornographic photography of Europe together with Budapest (which also belonged to the Austro-Hungary empire).

Schiele’s arrest opened the debate around the difference between pornography and art; his supporters argued that Schiele did produce art, and he himself justified it emphasizing that the paintings were not intended to arouse the public. The same dilemma took place for D.H. Lawrence whose novels were sanctioned around the same time in the UK for being too explicit in descriptions of the sexual act. Lawrence in fact wrote an essay entitled “Pornography and Obscenity” (1929) stating the difference between art and pornography of what he was accused for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). In the 1929 essay, Lawrence accuses Victorian morality of being pornographic in its obsession with negating sex and keep it aside because for Lawrence pornography consists on insulting sex and make it dirty, exactly what the Victorian puritans did, according to him. Lawrence understands sex as something mystical, sacred, the negation of which means a human negation, and, even worst, sex becomes then something to make fun of, to parody because it is kept secret. It is in this context – in the context of the forbidden – that pornography can exist. Indeed, secrecy is pornography, says Lawrence, and that might explain the strong pornographic sense of all 19th C. literature as far as it insists in avoiding it: the sexual obsession under-lives in bourgeois texts.

Eroticism, for both Lawrence and Schiele exists in the realm of art: it is an aestheticism of sexuality, so to say. According to this simple definition, the difference between pornography and eroticism is not found in the content but in the attitude towards the content both from the author and the public. The writer and the painter here had in common their views on the mysticism of sex, and hence its relation to human spirituality and need to represent it without falling into pornography. This attitude towards sex is common in Modernism, and probably Freud influenced on it: sexuality became a topic, and a very present element of the human being.

The body in the private room in Claudine

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Colette (1873-1954) was a French writer belonging to Modernism and one of the most sexual liberal writers of the early 20th C. Her life and her work show her bisexuality, promiscuity and all kind of sexual experiences. Her collection of books known as Claudine – Claudine à l’école, Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, Claudine s’en va – explain the life of Claudine since her adolescence until her divorce. The first of the books takes place in a boarding school where Claudine’s tendency to homosexuality is suggested through her friendship with Luce and where she observes the homoerotic relationship between two teachers of the school. The second book takes place in Paris and describes her new home and the arousing her own erotic consciousness: her body is described in detail with a strong repetitive presence of the mirror, and her room and sense of intimate space appear simultaneously being as well highly described. Claudine’s room is important because is the place where she dreams and where she describes and touches her body; living in a bourgeois house, her room has place for a bath, so all the toilet is done there conforming a very private and personal area. In Paris Claudine falls in love with her uncle, twenty years older than her whom she marries to at the end of the novel. This second book shows a certain degree of plenitude, Claudine does not feel herself alienated with her domestic space neither with her body. She experiences her desires at the same time that a sense of belonging accommodates her in her bedroom.

One of the characteristics attributed to Colette is her willingness to write about the female body and desire as she did. The description of sexual acts from the female point of view was terribly innovative in the 1900, as well homoerotic desire among women. Considering the Victorian context, Colette dared to express through some of her heroines the distasteful sensations of being with lovers or husbands showing female dissatisfaction with her intimate relationships with men and satisfaction being with women suggesting a different sexuality and different requirements among sexes: “Il m’y serre, si tendu que j’entends trembler ses muscles. Tout vetu il m’y embrace, m’y maintient – mon Dieu, qu’attend-il donc pour se déshabiller, lui aussi? – et sa bouche et ses mains m’y retiennent, sans que son corps me touche, depuis ma révolte tresaillante jusqu’à mon contentment affolé, jusqu’àu honteux gémissement de volupté que j’aurais voulu retenir par orgueil. Après, seulement auprès, il jette ses habits comme j’ai feat des miens, et il rit, impitoyable, pour vexer Claudine stupéfaite et humiliée”.

Once married, Claudine starts feeling alienated in her husband’s house: “Pour rentrer! Je n’ai donc pas de demeure? Non! J’habite ici chez un monsieur, un monsieur que j’aime, soit, mais j’habite chez un monsieur! Hélas! Claudine, plante arrachée de sa terre […] Où rentrer? En moi”. The loss of her own room contributes to her feeling of no-belonging, and her husband’s possession of her body probably contributes to this strangeness. Thus Claudine’s remembrances about her friendship with Luce reappear now longing for physical and emotional fulfillment with her regretting her previous despise. It may appear clear that if Claudine does not feel her intimacy in her marital room is due to her impossibility to communicate with her husband, therefore she feels urge to seek outside.

Béatrice Didier on L’écriture-femme: Female Writers and their Texts

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‘L’écriture féminine est une écriture du Dedans : l’intérieur du corps, l’intérieur de la maison’; this is a statement which very well exemplifies Didier’s thoughts on female writing in her book L’écriture-femme, a brief but very interesting selection of female writers since the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The book is lovely written and very reccomendable for its analysis of the works of a few authors. Didier approaches her analysis from that which makes singular a female writing in contrast to a male writing; in this context, she outlines writing and text characteristics usually belonging to women writers – she repeatedly warns against dangerous generalizations but insists on a set of particular details usually found in female writings. At the end of the book she calls for a mutual enrichment between male and female authors learning from what they can teach to each other being her critique directed towards the historical Western general exclusion of female approaches to the text and over-valorization of what is masculine. For female writers to be awarded there is no need to write like men but to accept how  – and what – they write.

Historically, being women more confined to their domestic spaces, they wrote about what was inside the house, about topics talked mostly among women, and issues they were concerned about, and they have done it differently than men. Yet in the 20th C. there are big differences between Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford being they both recognized Modernist and cultivated writers. Henry James and Edith Wharton are another example of fellow contemporaries who read each other, and still an attentive reader can draw a line from Jane Austen to Emily Brontë finishing in Wharton, so different from James’s narrative, style and approach to reality. Didier, Cixous did, relates female writing to the female body, but also to women’s relationship with the house and maternity: ‘Le désir d’écrire, aussi fondamental peut-être que le désir d’enfanter et qui probablement répond à la même pulsion, ne pouvait être utilisé de la même façon par la société. Si l’enfantement apparaissait comme la condition même de la survie de tout groupe humain et par conséquent devait être organisé dans une structure sociale, le désir d’écrire, lui, semblait au contraire marginal, subversif, à tout le moins inutile’. Therefore, creation and pro-creation going hand by hand, and indeed, it is not till Modernism that most women wrote and wrote subversive literature. According to Didier, psychoanalysis may have pushed these women to write due to its assertion that differences on identities were important: ‘La véritable conquête de l’écriture féminine moderne aura été peut-être, aidée là encore par tout un courant de pensée issu à la foi de la psychanalyse et de l’existensialisme, d’inscrire différemment l’identité dans le texte’.

Some of the characteristics Didier attributes to female writing are its orality: being women the ones who repeated tales inside the house, they transmitted oral particularities to the written text: ‘une écriture telle que le flux de la parole s’y retrouve, avec ses soubresauts, ses ruptures et ses cris’. Another characteristic is the temporal perception strongly marked by women’s biological cycles: ‘Il est possible aussi que la femme ressente le temps autrement que ne le fait l’homme, puisque son rythme biologique est spécifique. Temps cyclique, toujours recommencé, mais, avec ses ruptures, sa monotonie et ses discontinuités’. And finally the body makes another big difference: ‘‘La présence de la personne et du sujet impose immanquablement la présence du corps dans le texte. Et il est bien évident que c’est peut-être le seul point sur lequel la spécificité soit absolument incontestable, absolue. Si l’écriture féminine apparaît comme neuve et révolutionnaire, c’est dans la mesure où elle est écriture du corps féminin’.

The body is undeniable, and marks a very visible difference and one may say it makes physical the two previous points: voice and biological temporality. But the female also feels different from the male one, and experiences sexuality in another way – being of course, at the same time, different for every single person – so that it may affect the writing. It explains again the boom of female writers, so to say, after Freud, writing not only in a very particular way but of their bodies: the female body, so under control during the 19th C., is put into paper by women- men did it before – at the turn of the century: ‘Monde de sensations jusque-là inexplorées et qui supposeraient, pour etre exprimées, une autre langue’.

Polygamous space in The Good Soldier

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‘Their rooms all gave on to the gallery; Leonora’s to the east, the girl’s next, then Edward’s. The sight of these three open doors, side by side, gaping to receive whom the chances of the black night might bring, made Leonora shudder all over her body”

This passage of Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) suggests a polygamous or orgiastic reality trough the description of the interior space. At this point of the novel, Leonora, Edward’s wife, knows the affair between he and the maid, Nancy, moreover she does not only know it but rather accept it completely encouraging the girl to keep on her adulterous relationship as she finally has determined to divorce Edward and, in a sort of cynicism, thinks he needs the relationship with the girl. The absence of sex between Leonora and Edward is balanced with all Edward’s adulterous relationships which carry the sexual weight of the text. In the particular case of Nancy, the fact that she lives within the familiar house adds an uncanny element to  the narrative emphasizing Leonora’s incertitude on what may be happening next door.

The moment quoted focuses on Leonora’s feeling finding herself in the middle of a space surrounded by three open doors, properly speaking, three promiscuous open doors. ‘Black night’ suggest unknown faces: anyone could be anyone else penetrating into a space almost by chance as if some sort of unconscious instinct may lead among them. The fact that all three rooms give on to the gallery avoids a sense of privacy and intimacy in what is performed inside which is to say, it is performed outdoors as the open door represents the remove border. The three open doors around the hall invite any of three inhabitants of these rooms to interchange them, to cross the borders of their privacy. The sense of transgression remains in the obscurity of the rooms which even if open are dark, that is, they hide to a certain point what is happening inside, and Leonora’s shudder is the key sensation which transmits to the reader the transgression of the suggestion.

In this context, the domestic space is transgressive: the boundaries of the 19th century bourgeoise family have been violated. The high value of privacy born with the creation of the modern family as stated in Rousseau disappears according to the use of sexuality, especially, made within the domestic space.

A Modern Ifigenia

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Teresa de la Parra’s work Ifigenia (Venezuela, 1924) tells the unfortunate story of a young woman who sees all her dreams perish in the dull reality of the 1920s Caracas society. The book is a large one and a lot of topics, all the same interesting, may be identified. Aware that other readers may find some other themes than those here presented, I will limit myself to the following ones:

Ifigenia is a Venezuelan high society girl who has spent almost all her life in Paris with her father; she attends a French boarding school and enjoys all Parisian pleasures which by the date are totally subject to the modernist fashion: art noveau, Channel and Vogue conform her parisian life and she does not attempt to give up her daily life. But Ifigenia’s father dies and she is forced to go back to Caracas out of pure necessity where she expects to inherit her father’s fortune. Unfortunately, thinks are very different for Ifigenia, and once she arrives at Caracas, at her grandma’s house, she encounters  an old fashioned society and principles: her grandma and aunt have strict plans of marrying Ifigenia with a proper man who does not stand for parisian modes and fashions; European airs are totally out of place in the American country. Ifigenia is not the first work to show this fear of European contamination, Henry James pursues this topic in most of his works, Edith Warthon’s character, Countess Oleska, is to blame for her liberal european ideas, even Tolstoi puts himself out of ‘Europe’ and criticises moral degeneration in the continent. Thus, Ifigenia is left alone in most of the occasions to enjoy her parisian dresses and haircuts, most of them found in Vogue, which became a fashion magazine for the New Woman.

Ifigenia is also a work full of Romantic ideas about love; apart from the multiple literary references to couples such as Tristan and Isolda, Romeo and Juliet, etc. Ifigenia herself experiences a romantic passion for Gabriel, the man she will not marry because he is a divorced man, and society would not accept it. Ifigenia is not ready to abandon her family for her love and she finally marries her family’s match, César, a man with a complete tyrannical character who puts an end to all her parisian customs. It is very impressive the use of romantic discourse in such a late work, however, the influence of Romanticism in the 20th century is notably and is one of the pillars for breaking with bourgeoise rules in the 19th century and defending a marriage for love trying to avoid any kind of sense of duty. Another influence in Ifigenia is sentimental deism and the importance of feelings and nature. In this sense, it is remarkable Gabriel’s love letter to Ifigenia asking her to escape with him; the discourse is full of deistic ideas such as the exaltation of real feelings upon moral and social conventions, and the importance of nature as a divine setting.

Ifigenia finally marries César, and hence  her mane which refers back to Ifigenia’s sacrifice to save the Greek boat in its way home. She sacrifices herself, and her love, for her family marrying a man she does not love and who does not love her. There is a strong sense of not only spiritual but also physical renounce in her last words after the wedding which embrace the whole sexual experience in a terrible act of female submission.

Aesthetics of the Erotic in Japanese Art and Modernist European Literature

The British Museum exhibits an important Japanese painting collection called ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ which displays a high number of both erotic drawings and paintings in Japan since the 16th to the 19th century. The exhibition follows the history and development of this kind of art which became controversial in the early 20th century Japan. Sexuality is mainly explored as something very natural, common and even funny; the aim of these works were to be enjoyed by couples, as guidebooks, or for single stimulation. They present different positions, and erotic stories where usually a third person played a roll such as a jealous wife or a curious observer. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally depicted and a shameless sense of enjoying sex in whatever form or place predominates.

The shunga experienced some popularity in Europe through many artists of the Modernist period who were influenced by the erotic sense of the Asiatic paintings, such as Toulousse Lautrec. In a general sense, Japanese paintings arrive at Europe through vivid colours and sinuous lines; the sense of curve and sensuality is mainly predominant in both the Shunga and Modernist paintings (Tissot, Monet, and Kiyonaga):

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In Modernist literature eroticism is also stylised through the use of language or equating sexual and erotic experiences with art and artistic experiences. The whole sexual exploration present in Modernist literature in works from Proust, Gide, or Schnitzler, among others, testify that sexuality, or sensual experiences in general, can also be intellectually enjoyed and considered beautiful in themselves. The use of vivid colours, for example, in Gide’s The Immoralist depicts a sensuous and artistic approach of erotic bodies which are part of the exotic environment they belong to, and therefore, to its beautiful natural scenes. Swann in Remembrance of Time Lost enjoys music and painting as he enjoys his lover, finding difficult to separate artistic from sexual pleasure. His high stylised narrative, moreover, makes it almost impossible to differ between an act of artistic creation and a sexual one.

The close relationship between artistic-visual and sexual pleasure is already defined by Freud in his Essays on Sexuality where the object of beauty may lead to a sexual desire. Japanese art very well attempt this fusion outlining especially curve forms which of all are the most agreeable.

Why does Freud matter?

freud1938Freud has been highly criticised by both conservatives and liberals either for being too explicit in his discoveries or too critique in his conclusions. Nowadays it is mainly criticised to be ‘politically incorrect’ whatever it may be. Indeed his ‘sexual theories’ to say so are not precisely in agreement with what is today widely accepted: homosexuality, ‘sexual liberation’, and so on. For example, to argue that a promiscuous man is more likely to become a pedophile, or that to be homosexual is to be a narcissistic are two things one cannot openly say in the street. If we look now at the most conservative part of society, it is possible to note how neglected female hysteria is as a consequence of sexual dissatisfaction within marriage. These two ideological visions of Freud’s theories are at least high unfair.

Whatever Freud said and whatever one thinks of, Europe owes a great deal to Freud. His investigations meant a completely new world to both science and humanities, and they show the root of an important number of psychological issues; not to mention that he is the father of psychoanalysis, and of a deeper understanding of sexuality. Freud was a great observer of the human mind and behaviour, and a brave man who was not afraid of his contemporaries. He faced lots of child-abuse cases within a bourgeois society and dared to dive into the human soul.

Literary studies are as well in debt with him. I would like to synthesise how can be Freud’s theories used into the literary field:

1. Aesthetics: Psychoanalysis opened the world of dreams and, particularly, its own logic. 20th century is full of artistic examples of a dream aesthetic (Kafka, Schnitzler, Dalí, Hitchcock, Welles, Brecth, among others). Freud’s influence cannot be mislead for those who approached especially the first part of the century.

2. Characters: Psychoanalysis has enhanced the understanding of literary characters and their relationships beyond the limits of the 20th century. Specially important are the familiar relationships to be approach, in many cases, from a Freudian perspective.

3. Art: The relationship between art and the artist acquires a more existential and sexual perspective; as well as the relations between sexuality, beauty and desire.

4. Sexuality: Explorations in the field of literary representations of sexual issues are facilitate by Freud’s studies on sexual behaviour which were pioneer. A quite complete analysis of all kind of sexual experiences was openly explore by Freud.

5. Unconscious: Terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘unconscious’, ‘sub-conscious’, ‘repression’ are properly born through Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis. These concepts complete the understanding of human behaviour especially in unhealthy cases.

6. Body: Literary representations of the body can be approach metaphorically, that is, as a physical representation of the mind or illness. Freud advances further postmodern theories of the body and its relationship to the illness and the text such as those of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

7. Childhood: The importance of early experiences in life has result to be a key point in general psychology until now.

I think the seven points above are the most important. Generally speaking, psychoanalysis has brought a deeper understanding of the relationship body-mind, and it is not at all surpassed by any other posterior theory, it is perfectly complementary to a kind of more scientific studies. Freud deserves, as any important thinker, a high consideration.